Andrew Rock is currently in his 11th season as Head Track and Field Coach at Bethel University in Minnesota. At Bethel, he has coached 79 All-Americans, 100 NCAA Qualifiers, and 184 Conference Champions, and his athletes have set 60 school records. Prior to coaching, as a 400-meter sprinter with a personal best of 44.35 seconds, Andrew was consistently ranked in the top 5 in the world and won Olympic Gold in 2004, World Championship Gold in 2005 in the 4x400m, and World Championship Silver in 2005 in the 400m. He was a 17-time All-American and nine-time NCAA National Champion at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. He broke numerous school, conference, and national records before graduating with a BS in Finance.
Freelap USA: You had an outstanding career as a sprinter, placing second in the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki in the 400m while coached by Mark Guthrie. As a coach, what are some of the aspects you implement that are influenced by Guthrie and your background as an athlete?
Andrew Rock: Coach Guthrie is by far my biggest influence as a coach, and we continue to talk regularly; while he’s retired, he’s volunteer coaching the 400-meter athletes at Wisconsin La Crosse. I have always found him personable, and he handles relationships very well. He would consistently check in with us to see how we were doing and how we were feeling, and it was clear he cared about me and all the athletes on the team. It was a really collaborative program, and that’s something I’m trying to replicate here at Bethel.
Coach Guthrie obviously knew his stuff, handled training very well, and pushed us to work hard, but I never felt that this was the only thing that mattered. His communication and organization were excellent. This meant we just had to come to practice and execute what he asked of us without any concerns about whether we were running at the right pace or doing the right volumes, etc. We trusted him and his judgment so much, which led to us loving to compete for him. His success at Wisconsin La Crosse was not accidental; it was because he created a culture where the athletes felt valued, and this is something I’ve tried to implement in my own program.
Track can be a hard sport, and the training can be tough, but the athletes want to feel valued—and if they do, they’ll give more. If the athletes look forward to coming to practice and love what they’re doing, then maybe the hard work doesn’t feel quite so hard or like such a grind; it can be an excellent stress reliever away from the pressure of school.
The fun part of coaching is developing and implementing workouts, seeing their impact on the athletes, and adjusting as necessary, but that’s only one aspect of the job. I think we sometimes forget how important it is to build positive relationships and how this trickles down and contributes to performance. I believe that if the workouts aren’t perfect—and it’s probably rare for coaches to get the training spot on every time as it’s a difficult thing to do—but the relationships and some of these other intangible things are in place, then it can overcome that shortfall.I want my athletes to enjoy their collegiate careers as much as possible because, ultimately, those four years can go by quite quickly, but it’s the memories that last. Click To Tweet
I’m very much about the process and the experiences you develop as an athlete. I want my athletes to enjoy their collegiate careers as much as possible because, ultimately, those four years can go by quite quickly, but it’s the memories that last. For example, when you reached out to me to do this interview, you mentioned Tim Benjamin, and it lights me up to hear his name, as it brings back such fond memories of my own from when I was an athlete.
Freelap USA: You have access to a flat indoor track, which means tighter turns than athletes would typically face in most competitions. In the winter in Minnesota, I’m sure it’s challenging to get outside often. Do you do much running around the indoor bends in practice? If not, how do you approach developing the specific endurance required for the 200m and 400m?
Andrew Rock: Most of the indoor tracks in the upper Midwest are flat 200-meter tracks, so it does provide us with a good way to specifically prepare for the indoor season. However, the team here knows that we will stay outside for as long as we possibly can, on the outdoor track and the hills, until the snow or temperature forces us to do something different.
Normally, the snow forces us to head inside before the temperature does, and we were able to stay outside until around mid-November this year, although we can stay on the hill a little longer than we can stay on the outdoor track. There’s only so fast you can go on a hill, especially if the reps are longer, and we may go as far as 300 meters. It’s not possible to go all-out in a session involving more than one rep of this kind of work, and after that, the quality of the subsequent reps will be compromised. To try and avoid this problem, I often set workouts where I tell them that each rep needs to get quicker. But I think a hill can be an intensity limiter in itself, and this means we are able to often stay on the hill in weather that is colder and snowier than I would feel comfortable running a track workout on.
I think it’s helpful that, as an athlete, I trained my whole career in the upper Midwest, so I can relate to the athletes in this context. I think our situation can be viewed in two ways. When the coach sets a hill workout when it’s 25 degrees Fahrenheit with snow flurries, and the athlete knows it will not be fun, they could use the conditions as an excuse not to train, or they can make the choice to do something that maybe their competitors aren’t doing, and gain an advantage that way.
As the weather continues to get more challenging, we have no choice but to be on the indoor track. But I try to be creative and have the athletes run both ways on the straight, or we only use the outside lanes if we’re using the bends, and typically I’d slow things down a little indoors to cater to this. We do have to monitor things like volumes with athletes, depending on their injury history, or bigger athletes, where the turns can be more challenging to negotiate.
For example, in a workout like 2x450m, I may have them do the first 450 meters as usual, and then in place of the second rep, they may do 80-meter reps coming out of the turn, so they never have to run into it, or 60-meter repeats where they turn around and go again, so they don’t even have to touch the bend. These reps are repeated with really short recoveries, and the volume is pretty much equated, so they’ll do around 450 meters of running in this “set,” but the amount of running done on the turns is significantly less.
Freelap USA: Sarah Stellmach has improved her 100m and 200m times by around a second since joining you, and Landen Liu looks like he is on his way to beating his 10.89 PR, based upon his recent 6.80 60m. What are some of the key factors that you think have led to these significant improvements?
Andrew Rock: I think lifting has played a huge role in developing our short sprinters, and you can do more on the track as you get stronger and more powerful. We have a strength coach who runs a great strength program built upon fundamental principles and exercises. I would say that the Olympic lifts may be the most important thing we do in the weight room, and then we use variations on some of the more traditional exercises.
For example, we may use back squats for a cycle before bringing in front squats, lunges, or step-ups. We typically use cycles that last for three or four weeks before rotating the lifts and look for subtle variations that may help increase the training adaptations of the athletes. It’s important to me to train through full ranges of motion in the upper body exercises, as I feel that can assist the athletes in keeping their shoulders relaxed when sprinting, which spills down to the rest of the body. In terms of other power development exercises, we use plyometrics and jumping as another way to really help recruit the fast twitch fibers that are important in sprint performance.It’s important to train through full ranges of motion in the upper body exercises as I feel it will help athletes keep their shoulders relaxed when sprinting, which spills down the rest of the body. Click To Tweet
In addition to the weight room, we spend a good amount of time on acceleration and mechanics, which obviously has a huge influence on the outcome of a short sprint race. Both Sarah and Landen are students of the sport and want to find ways in which they can improve. Therefore, they like me using video analysis and providing them with plenty of feedback, to the extent that Landen can perhaps over-analyze things, and I need to hold him back a little in that regard.
They both like to ask questions, such as why we are doing what we are doing, which is excellent for me, as it only challenges me to become better! This links back to what I said about Coach Guthrie: this is a collaborative process, not a dictatorship. So, together, we can explore ways to increase performance, and I think their ultra-competitive personalities and excellent work ethics have played a huge role in their improvements.
Both of these athletes have excellent range. Sarah has run a 56 for 400m, and I think 200m might be Landen’s best event! I’m still working on him for the 400m, but now that he’s run 6.80, he’s asked me if I can just accept that he’s a short sprinter, ha-ha! This range has been developed, in my opinion, by good, consistent, old-fashioned, hard work. There is nothing gimmicky about what we do, and these athletes will be out on the hills in the winter with the 400m athletes, although their workouts will be different, with the majority of their reps in the 60–80-meter range, possibly extending up to 150 meters at times.
Freelap USA: In a college setting, it can be challenging to logistically implement a lot of technology within the athletes’ sessions, but is there much in the way of technology that you use?
Andrew Rock: The main piece of technology I use is an app called Coach’s Eye, particularly on the technical days and with the hurdlers. This enables me to provide immediate feedback, which is really helpful to the athletes. It can speed up the learning process and make it more meaningful because they can associate it with a feeling they have just had or an activity they have just done. Also, being able to watch a slowed-down replay of a movement better enables me to spot subtle technical variations that I might not otherwise be able to see.
I also think being able to show the athletes what they have done allows them to learn what I am looking for more effectively and then spot their own errors. This means they can take more responsibility for their learning, which is great. Most people respond well to responsibility because it demonstrates to them that they add value. It also puts them in a position where they can help each other, which is particularly helpful in a Division III setting where we have around 105 athletes, a limit on resources, and a small coaching staff.Most people respond well to responsibility because it demonstrates to them that they add value. Click To Tweet
For example, Albert Smith is an athlete on the team who is running really well; he has taken on an almost “coach-like” role, which has been great for the younger athletes on the team. I think that as he has taught the mechanics, he has come to understand them more, which has helped him become a better athlete as well. This also creates an environment within our team that I love, where two athletes may be rivals and want to beat each other, but they are on the same team, and they want to help each other get better as well.
While we don’t have one yet, I am interested in potentially getting a timing system, such as a Freelap, as another means to provide objective, instantaneous feedback to the athletes. I would like to be able to accurately time flying runs, especially with our 100m athletes, as I think this kind of objective feedback is really helpful—especially in track. This sport is exclusively based on objective feedback!
Freelap USA: Can you outline what a typical training week may look like in the pre-season for your athletes?
Andrew Rock: In the fall, we lift three days per week—usually Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday—and this is largely dictated by when we can access the weight room in the rec center. We also do some variation of plyometrics or multi-jumps once per week.
We start on the track in late October, and typically our weekly workout schedule would look something like the following for our 400m athletes:
- Monday – 8x200m (2-minute recovery)
- Tuesday – Active recovery (hurdle mobility, medicine ball work, plyometrics, multi-jumps)
- Wednesday – 2x500m, cutting down to 2x450m and then 2x350m (12–15 minutes recovery)
- Thursday – Technical day
- Friday – Hills
The 100m athletes’ week would look something like this:
- Monday – 6x30m (2–3 minutes recovery, based upon the premise of one recovery per 10 meters) building to 6x60m. Then I have a three-week rotation, whereby we do:
- Week 1 – 6x60m hill with walk-back recovery (we have a hill right behind the stadium)
- Week 2 – Runs up the stadium steps
- Week 3 – Medicine ball multi-throws
- Tuesday – Active recovery (hurdle mobility, medicine ball work, plyometrics, multi-jumps)
- Wednesday – 3x250m (8-minute RR)
- Thursday – Technical day
- Friday – Hills
On Mondays, for the 100m athletes, I must provide guidance on recovery times and teach them that if they’re not fatigued, it doesn’t mean the workout isn’t effective. In these workouts, they may not notice the type of fatigue they get, but the recovery is important to maintain a high quality of work.Recovery days can be the most challenging days mentally, as it requires a certain degree of discipline to hold back in terms of effort or intensity. Click To Tweet
I stress the point that recovery days are as important as the hard days, and, perhaps ironically, these can be the most challenging days mentally, as it requires a certain degree of discipline to hold back in terms of effort or intensity. I think it is almost easier to be motivated for a hard day, as the athletes generally want to crush the workout, and they will get pumped up for that and know that they have to be feeling sharp. But I make it clear that each day has a purpose, and I explain what that purpose is and what is required of the athletes to meet that day’s objective.
I’m very conscious about taking it one day at a time in this regard. For example, if we have a meet on Saturday, we don’t worry about that until we’ve got Monday to Friday out of the way and have hit the objectives for each of those days first.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF